Monthly Archives: November 2010

Hanukkah Snuggies, Oy!

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Culture, History on by .

There’s not much we as Jews can really unite under. We tend to agree that the Holocaust was bad (and so was the Inquisition) but the following issues have proved controversial in Jewish communities around the world
–the creation of the State of Israel was good
–the Armenian genocide was bad
–Women can sometimes be smart
–sexual abuse is bad
–Jesus

But I’ve got good news! Finally, there’s something we can all come together on (and it’s not Sholom Rubashkin)! It’s the Hanukkah Snuggie commercial:

I think we can all agree:
This is embarrassingly bad
AND
Snuggies are probably incredibly comfy and warm.

Next year at the GA I am so presenting a session based on this theory.

Posted on November 30, 2010

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Hanukkah 2010: Spread the Fire

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

MJL and Bible Raps proudly presents our new music video for Hanukkah 2010: “Light Is in the Air.”


You might remember Matt Bar (and his producer/co-Bible Raps-er, Ori Salzberg) from their project Bible Raps (and you might remember Matt Bar from my wacky adventures with the ROI Community).

This is a whole new chapter in the MJL/Bible Raps video community…and it’s a whole new way to see the Festival of Lights.

Happy Hanukkah!

Posted on November 30, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Hanukkah–The Struggles of Our Day

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit www.ajws.org.

One of the blessings recited as Jews light the Hanukkah candles each year is: “Blessed are you, the force that rules the universe, who made possible miracles for our ancestors, in those days, and also makes the same possible for us in our own times.” We celebrate to remember the past and to renew our confidence in the present and the future.

Hanukkah celebrates political will and fortitude as well as the mysterious quality of trust in something greater than human effort alone. The successful revolt against the Seleucid Empire was a triumph over the forces of totalitarianism. It was nurtured by its connection to the One God whose word is eternally opposed to tyranny and the abuse of wealth and power that dehumanizes the weak, the different and the marginalized. A light was kindled in the hearts of a few—one that told them they could battle oppression, cynicism and greed if they could call upon deep wisdom to guide their struggle.

Hundreds of years after the Maccabee revolt, the rabbis of the Talmud related that when the victorious Jewish rebels entered the Temple, they found only enough oil to light the menorah for one day, yet the oil lasted for eight days. I understand both the Maccabees’ challenge to the imperial forces and the long-burning menorah as demonstrations of faith and courage. They are the twin miracles that beat the odds and challenged conventional wisdom.

What are the struggles of our day where our faith and courage can bring about similar miracles? In what areas do we need to call upon the clear bright light of chochmah—wisdom (equated in our tradition with oil)—to ignite the miraculous and essential transformations that are so needed?

In 2009, two Wall Street Journal writers, Roger Thurow and Scott Kilman, published a book called Enough: Why the World’s Poorest Starve in an Age of Plenty. In it, they tell the story of the world’s hungry, citing the inconceivable statistic that 25,000 people throughout the Global South die every day from hunger, malnutrition and related diseases. Their title is telling: Enough!! The authors make it abundantly clear that there is indeed enough food in the world to feed everyone. The tragic shame is that not everyone has access to it.

The solution the authors propose is political activism, here in the Global North, to overturn years of anachronistic and bloated farm subsidies and so-called “free trade.” They urge the wise use of science and marketing know-how to build and sustain the Global South’s agricultural infrastructure. They offer a pointed critique of United States aid policies that have thwarted the development of self-sufficiency in parts of the Global South. And they reveal the dangerous consequences of turning food into fuel, and present strategies that contradict assumptions of scarcity. It is indeed possible, they demonstrate, to engender the “miracle” of enough food to end world hunger.

Hanukkah is the holiday of “enough!” There was enough oil for eight days; scarcity was the assumption but plenty was the reality. This is a miracle in the sense that it surprises us and defies our expectations. It points to another miracle, namely that a few people believed they could reverse policies that were antithetical to human dignity. And what could be more lethal to human dignity than hunger?

The miracle today will occur when we overcome our apathy, despair and powerlessness in the face of what seems overpowering. I urge us to consider reading this accessible book after the lights of our chanukiah have dimmed, and to consider advocating for policy reform and new practices that work for the poorest in our world. As the days of Hanukkah ebb we are called to say: “Enough is enough!”

If we do, we will find the source of all miracles. Light does indeed emerge from darkness. In this darkest time of the year, when it looks like light is dimming all around us and global poverty, disease and war are darkening the sky, the light of new activism, new ideas and new energy are also present. We can partake of this light. If we do, it can infuse our lives with the same courage and faith that stirred our ancestors to act. In this way, we can bring about our own miracles today.

Posted on November 30, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

If MJL Produced a Rock-Opera Short…

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

I was too young to ever see this commercial on TV, so I just discovered it via YouTube now.

First of all, I had no idea there were so many Mormons in Brooklyn. And second, after watching this I can’t help but wonder if MJL should try to make the equivalent video for Jews. It could be about being nice to dorks (a quality every good Jew should have). Mayim Bialik could star with, say, Ira Glass.

This is gonna be awesome…

Posted on November 29, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

On To The Next One

This entry was posted in Holidays on by .

Is this really happening? Can Hanukkah actually be this week? I’m all for latkes and dreidels, but this holiday season is already ridiculous. I’m still full from all that turkey.

If I’m not mistaken, we’ve just entered High Holidays 2.0.

It’s not always like this. But with the Hebrew calendar being pushed so early, this year we go straight from family time on Thanksgiving to family time on Hanukkah. And this has some dire consequences. Before you know it, Hanukkah is going to turn into Sukkot. You know Sukkot, that otherwise pretty awesome holiday except for the fact that you’ve already been through Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. And just like Sukkot, you have to get through eight full days of it!

Here in New York, it hasn’t even snowed yet. There are even some leaves left on the one tree on my street. In other words, it’s definitely not winter.

Obviously we can’t change the calendar. But December 1st for Hanukkah? It just doesn’t seem right that’s all. Plus, once it’s over, we still will have to endure a full three weeks of Christmas commercials. Spare me please.

Posted on November 29, 2010

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Matisyahu’s New Hanukkah Song–”Miracle”

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Just released yesterday, Matisyahu has a brand new song for the holiday season. I just listened to it for the first time minutes ago, and I’m digging it.

Listen to it now before it goes huge so you can pretend that you knew about it before it was popular–making you automatically cool.

Also, Happy Thanksgiving! Or if you’re Canadian, have fun at work on Thursday and Friday!

Posted on November 24, 2010

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What My Thanksgiving Dinner Will Be Like*

This entry was posted in Beliefs, Practices, Texts on by .

On the plane this morning I ended up being seated next to a guy who is in rabbinical school, and turns out to live on the same block as me in New York. We had an oddly wonderful conversation about Midrash, and about our various objections to Aish. It got me thinking about this awesome video. Three different people tried to explain it to me this week, but it’s something that you have to experience to understand, since it touches on all of the following: lentil stew, a time-space bending machine, a stroke, and wearing Crocs on Tisha B’Av.

*Except with fewer big pink and purple trees.

Posted on November 24, 2010

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Jewish Christmas Music, 2010 Edition

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You know, I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard “White Christmas.”

Sure, I know that it was written by Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant, and that it’s become a vital part of American culture. I’d definitely heard part of it before, the end part, where everyone sings “may all your Christmases be white”…but does the song really go like that? Is it really sort of pretty and actually funny? Does this make me a bad Jew? (Add this to the fact that I admitted on our Jewish parenting site that I actually like Halloween, I’m about to be kicked out of the so-Orthodox-I-don’t-own-a-TV camp for reals.)

We just got a press copy of lounge Pink Martini‘s new CD “Joy to the World.” They’re a Portland-based band (they call themselves a “little orchestra”) who performs smart, swinging lounge music that’s funny and sappy and smart as anything. Here they are performing a song that has nothing to do with Christmas:

The lyrics on the new album aren’t quite as juicy as the video clip, but they’re every bit as clever and acrobatic. (I mean, they’re covering Irving Berlin!) And then there are the other songs — a bunch of Christmas songs, all in the brand of self-aware smooth-jazz for which Pink Martini is known but is pleasant enough to listen to, which catapults you back to the 1920s and 30s and makes you feel just by listening to it that you’ve somehow acquired a pinstripe suit and a bowler hat, and, if you’re me, you might start thinking, Oh L-rd, have I turned into my grandparents?

And also turned Christian?

There are the Jewish songs, too. So many Christmas albums have the token Jewish song, which used to make buying the album pointless — 12 songs I’ll never listen to, and 2 songs that I will!? — until the iTunes store came along and let you buy single tracks. But if we only get a 12% share of Pink Martini’s album, they definitely didn’t skimp on quality. One entry is the Sephardic Hanukkah song “Ocho Kandelikas” — which used to be obscure five years ago, but now exists in enough cover versions to make you suspect that “I Have a Little Dreidel” is going out of style.

</pAnd then there’s a take, totally randomly, of “Elohai, N’Tzor,” the song (well, the line) that closes the Amidah prayer. It’s operatic and delicate and overblown, about 90% church music and 10% Old Cantorial Music. But it’s scarily well done. And it features Ida Rae Cahana, the former cantor at the Central Synagogue in New York, dueting with — wait for it — Ari Shapiro, who is NPR’s White House correspondent. It makes you feel uncomfortably like you’ve stumbled into a church service, and yet at the same time it’s exceedingly pleasant to listen to. Like when my parents used to take my sister and me driving around to look at Christmas lights.

Posted on November 24, 2010

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Not a Historical Record

This entry was posted in History on by .

Earlier this week, Ruth Franklin wrote about sharing a stage with Yann Martel and discussed whether anything new can be said about the Holocaust. She is the author of A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction.

One of the demoralizing things about writing a book about Holocaust literature is how much of it there is out there. Over the past few years, when I’ve told people about my book, they invariably respond with: “Oh, have you read _____? It’s the most devastating testimonial/most essential work of history/most beautifully written novel I’ve ever read about the Holocaust.” And then I have to admit that no, not only have I not read _____, I’ve never even heard of it, and shamefacedly add yet another item to my list.

In some cases, I’ve been able to rectify these deficits. After Stanley Kauffmann alerted me to Piotr Rawicz’s amazing Blood from the Sky, a surrealist novel about a young man who goes into hiding in Ukraine, I devoted a chapter of my book to it—the first sustained criticism of this novel to appear in English. I’m hoping it will inspire readers to become more familiar with Rawicz’s work, which is brilliant, experimental, and in some places searingly funny. In my favorite scene, the main character undergoes a “citizenship test” in prison to prove that he is Ukrainian. After a hot debate on the minutiae of politics, literature, and cultural pride, he emerges the winner. “That’s no Jew,” his interlocutor declares. “Take my word for it. He couldn’t be. He’s trash, of course…. But he isn’t a Jew.”

But other writers didn’t come to my attention until my book had already gone to press. This is the case with H.G. Adler, whose 1962 novel The Journey was published in English by Random House last year. I noticed the book, put it aside, and promptly forgot about it until a few weeks ago, when the galley of another newly translated Adler novel appeared in my mailbox. Strikingly modernist, Panorama, which originally appeared in 1968, is structured as a series of ten snapshots from the life of Josef Kramer, a Jew in Prague. I found it immediately haunting and affecting.

Adler, I learned from the book’s introduction by Peter Filkins (who is also the translator), was born Prague in 1910 and spent two and a half years in Theresienstadt before being deported to Auschwitz, where his wife and parents died. After being liberated from a labor camp near Buchenwald, he lived as an exile in London for the rest of his life. What makes his intellectual project unique is that he adopted what Filkins calls a “bifurcated strategy” towards the Holocaust, approaching it through both fact and fiction in a way that no other writer has done. His notes on life in Theresienstadt, which he left with Leo Baeck for safekeeping before his deportation to Auschwitz, were published as the extraordinary 900-plus-page monograph Theresienstadt, 1941-45, a definitive documentary history of the camp. But Adler was also the author of five novels about his experiences during the war, which he wrote in a burst of creativity in the ten years after liberation. Panorama is the first of these; The Journey is the last.

Adler’s obscurity — his work is mentioned in no standard encyclopedias or guides to Holocaust literature — can be blamed partly on his publication difficulties: Peter Suhrkamp, then the head of the major German publishing house Suhrkamp Verlag, went so far as to say that The Journey would never appear in print as long as he was alive. (The book was written in 1950-51 but remained unpublished till 1962, three years after Suhrkamp’s death, at which point it was immediately recognized as a masterpiece.) Filkins writes that “neither Germany nor the world was ready for novels about the Holocaust in the 1950s”—an opinion with which Rawicz, writing in France only a few years later, would certainly have concurred.

Part of the opposition to Adler’s work undoubtedly had to do with the fact that, like Rawicz’s, its project is explicitly aesthetic rather than testimonial. (“This book is not a historical record,” Rawicz wrote in the epilogue to his novel. “If the notion of chance … did not strike the author as absurd, he would gladly say that any reference to a particular period, territory, or race is purely coincidental. The events that he describes could crop up in any place, at any time, in the mind of any man….”)

Then as now, critics and readers of Holocaust literature tend to feel most comfortable with works that are thoroughly grounded in fact: fiction is destabilizing and disorienting. But the life and work of H.G. Adler demonstrates how thoroughly imagination and memory can support and enrich each other.

Ruth Franklin’s A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction is now available. She has been blogging for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

Posted on November 24, 2010

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A Different Kind of Holiday Travel

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I leave for the airport in about fifteen minutes. I’m excited to be home for Thanksgiving, and also looking forward to the bizarre feeling I get when traveling before Turkey Day. See, the other times I tend to travel are right before Sukkot and right before Pesach. In those cases I am always stressed out about how close my flight is to the beginning of the holiday, and how much cooking I’m going to be able to do before candle lighting. In the airport I easily spot the other Jews heading home for the pilgrimage holidays, and I have, on a couple of occasions, made panicked plans with strangers about what we’ll do if the flight gets in really close to when Sukkot comes in.

On Thanksgiving, there is none of that panic or stress. Yes I need to be home in time for dinner tomorrow, but candlelighting is a whole two days away. I am only responsible for a small part of the Thanksgiving meal, and I can make it as close to the meal as I like. The stress feels—manufactured, I guess.

I was talking to a friend last night about family drama, and how we typically have some over Thanksgiving, but that nothing compared to Pesach. On Pesach, I explained, we’re all on top of each other and we have the added obligation of the seder—so many specific things we have to do, so many rules. On Pesach, we can absolutely guarantee someone will have a freak out. On Thanksgiving…it’s not unlikely, but there’s always the possibility that it will be avoided.

So let’s hope for stress-free travel, and family gatherings that allow everyone to hang on to whatever marbles they have left.

Posted on November 24, 2010

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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